Any Caribbean visitor to Cuba must be impressed by at least three important and immediate contrasts with the rest of the region. First, is the conspicuous absence of symptoms of unemployment (and underemployment); the signs of poverty are much less stark than elsewhere in the region – there is no prostitution and no begging of any kind, not even the covert kind of begging which produces ‘tipping’ in other places. Second, is the omnipresence of educational schemes – on radio and television, in the newspapers and factories, and throughout the length and breadth of the country. And, third, is the obvious involvement of the people with matters affecting the national life. The national and international awareness of the population at all levels and the general atmosphere of national cohesion, of public order, and of self-confidence are certainly not characteristic of the rest of the Caribbean.
That society is, of course, a product of numerous factors which influenced its development over a long period of time; but not the least of the factors are those which have occurred since 1959.
The present government of Cuba came into being as a movement which had committed itself to radical reforms of the existing order. The success of the movement was secured by two sets of influences, the one internal and the other external. In the first case, the movement, from the time of the Moncada raid, served to heighten the consciousness of the Cuban population of the possibilities for change and thus set the stage for the later development of a popular commitment. The harsh measures used by the Batista regime in attempting to crush the movement served to heighten consciousness even further; and the publication, in 1954 of the defence plea (History Will Absolve Me) delivered by Dr. Castro before the Emergency Tribunal of Santiago in October 1953 won widespread support for the movement both at home and abroad. That speech highlighted the brutality and injustices under Batista and outlined five laws which the movement had drafted as a basis for creating a new order. Thus by the time the armed campaign grew in intensity in the late 1950’s, signs of popular commitment began to appear; the population began to provide the revolutionary army with material support – many risking their lives by giving food and shelter.
However, given the superior military might of the Batista forces, the movement was forced to seek external support for the military campaign. Thus, it was that unofficial groups abroad, particularly in the United States and Mexico, helped to provide weapons and ammunition for the revolutionary army. The main form of external support at this stage was military, though it seems fair to infer that passive official sanction could also be attributed to a number or countries, especially those in which unofficial groups were actively extending aid to the movement.
It is clear that the initial success which brought the revolutionary government into power resulted from both the popular internal consciousness generated by the movement as well as the military support which it secured externally. A new phase now began as the government proceeded to effect changes within the society and began to seek official external support and sanction.
The revolutionary government inherited an economy which had stagnated for about 35 years on account of the fact that, as Seers puts it, it was structurally unsound. For the economy to function efficiently, some change in the structure was inevitable. So far as diversification of production was concerned, there was some room for manoeuvre since land and labour were grossly under-utilized. However, it is suggested here that the chief motive for promoting structural change – particularly in agriculture – was to satisfy expectations of the rural population among whom the commitment for change had been established.
But to make a beginning toward structural reform would naturally be to create certain forces that would eventually determine the shape of things. On the one hand, any widespread material benefits would strengthen the internal commitment; while on the other, far-reaching structural change would be likely to disrupt the traditional metropolitan connection. If internal commitment were sufficiently strong, and other sources of external support could be secured, then the society would be well placed to make a clean break with the plantation system. But this would also require that a complementary programme be devised for the purpose of integrating the bulk of the population who, up to then, had been alienated by the normal functioning of that system.
In other words, the eventual choice of an active development path would depend not only on the strength of internal commitment for change but also on whether some kind of external support could be secured. Once the choice had been made it would have immediately required far-reaching reforms in at least two areas: the economic organisation of agriculture and in the system, form and content of education. Only through these reforms could the choice effectively begin to transfer the dynamic of development from outside the society to within. Agriculture was of importance because therein was the main cause of internal immobility of resources and because agricultural diversification would provide an important stimulus for industrial development. Education would, of course, provide the necessary skills for the labour force and lay the foundation for technological change and, if appropriate, for cultural development. The actual reforms in agriculture and education, and their effects, are well documented by Bianchi and Jolly in the volume edited by Seers. But it is useful for the argument here to give a hint of the kinds of changes which have taken place.
The plantation system of agriculture in the pre-revolutionary period was characterised by serious under-utilization of both labour and land. A survey carried out in 1956-57 indicated that 38% of the rural labour force were less than fully employed and 28% were chronically unemployed. There was a heavy concentration of land among a few sugar cane plantations and cattle ranches, with a prevalence of non-resident owners. Less than 8% of all farm holdings occupied over 70% of all farm land. Indeed, up to early 1959, 28 cane producers alone controlled 20% of all farm land.
In view of this situation, it is not surprising that the Agrarian Reform Law was one of the earliest acts of the new administration. Subsequent revisions to the law and other complementary laws providing for the expropriation of property of supporters and officials of the Batista regime and, later, of American-owned sugar estates laid the foundation for dramatic changes in the rural picture. Thousands of peasants became owners of land they had previously rented, share-cropped or squatted; the productive potential of agriculture was more fully utilized. (Land under cultivation expanded by 20% and rural employment by 35% in the first two years). Today, the productive units in agriculture are either state farms or private farms. The former occupy 65% of the cultivated acreage and have an average size of 22,000 acres. The latter are organised into a National Association of Small Farmers which acts as a liaison between farmers and government.
In the pre-revolutionary period, the socio-economic position of the rural population was deplorable. Three-quarters of all rural dwellings were mud huts and two-thirds had earthen floors; nine-tenths had no electricity or running water. Out of each 100 rural families, only four could afford to eat meat, only two consumed eggs and one of each 100 families had fish. Forty-three per cent of the rural population were completely illiterate; 44% never attended any school and of the rest, 88% never passed third class. The position today represents a considerable improvement. That there is no rural unemployment today is proof enough. But in addition, mention must be made of the dramatic improvements in rural education, health and housing – mainly on account of heavy government investment in these areas.
It has been stated that “the revolutionary government has treated education as the key to a complete reconstruction of society”. As such, the educational programme is designed not just to develop skills but also to create a new system of national goals and values. This called for more than an extension of existing educational facilities; it called for a complete transformation in the system, form and content of education. In a country where few ( 25%) bad previously completed primary school, it required a tremendous national effort. A policy of mass education was necessary to increase the supply of skilled labour, to reduce inequalities, to provide incentives for work and to increase popular awareness. The literacy campaign of 1961 alone created a new world for one-sixth of the adult population who previously could neither read nor write. And it is not without significance that one million adults were involved in carrying out the campaign; it is a clear case of national involvement and some evidence of the emergence of an internal dynamic. The “battle of the sixth grade,” to raise every adult up to the sixth standard, is in progress and technical adult education is well developed. At the same time, matriculation in primary, secondary and technical schools and universities has expanded several fold.
The content and orientation of education have undergone considerable change. Content of the syllabus was designed to awaken “the young people to their duties as citizens of the Socialist Fatherland”. From the primary school level, the history of Cuba and in particular of the revolutionary struggle and achievements are taught with an interpretation that emphasizes the nature of capitalist imperialism and the fundamentals of socialism and capitalism. History teaching in secondary schools is based heavily on the Marxist view of the process of historical development. In the first introductory history text issued by the Ministry of Education (Trabajo y Lucha) it is stated that the hope is that the work will encourage further study and a deepening understanding and practical awareness of the creative science of Marxist-Leninism”. At the university level, all students in the first two years receive some grounding in the principles of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and the economic theory syllabuses are distinctly Marxist. At all levels, love for the Fatherland is strongly emphasized and the slogan “Patria o Muerte – Venceremos” (My Country or Death – We will win) is used effectively for this purpose.
The reforms in agriculture and education (and housing) have had profound effects. They have bestowed considerable material benefits on the bulk of the population; reduced economic and social inequalities; and have given a new sense of purpose to the population. There can be little doubt that the advance toward a more equitable distribution of wealth and income must have strengthened the initial commitment of the population at large to the revolutionary government. But the nature and process of change was not simply determined by the internal situation alone. Indeed, as is suggested in what follows the actual choice to make a clear break with the plantation system was perhaps as much influenced by certain external factors.
The revolutionary government actually began with rather limited programmes for change. In agriculture, for example, the Agrarian Reform Law of June 1959 only provided for expropriation of parts of excessively large holdings. But the state did not enter in the field of production; instead, titles were distributed to the landless peasantry. None of this was grave enough to seriously disturb the traditional connection with the United States. But it, no doubt, added strength to the popular rural commitment. Trouble really began when the government, in trying to extend its sphere of influence in the private sector, came into conflict with the American-owned oil refineries over the question of refining Soviet oil. The subsequent nationalisation of the refineries in mid-1960 was sufficiently disfavourable to metropolitan interests that American sanction was quickly withdrawn with its abolition of the Cuban sugar quota. This, in turn, led to Cuban expropriation of American-owned estates, factories, etc., to bring about the final collapse of the plantation system and a concomitant state of siege imposed by the United States.
It does not seem unreasonable to assume that the government was at the time aware that the move to nationalise the oil refineries could have created the conditions that would force it to go all the way. Obviously, then, it must have felt sure that it could consolidate the necessary internal support and at the same time secure some form of external support to replace the traditional one.
By the start of 1960, with the designation of that year as the “Year of Agrarian Reform”, the rural population must have been solidly committed to the new government. And, judging from the size of crowds which were turning out for the Prime Minister’s speeches, support was also strong in the urban areas. The tremendous popular response to the Declaration of Havana must surely have been sufficient to indicate to the government that the population was committed and ready to go the whole way. The series of industrial strikes clearly indicated the restlessness of the urban labour force and was no doubt of major importance in government’s decision to extend its sphere of economic control. The strikes can be related to the expectations created by a strong urban consciousness, if not commitment.
At the same time, efforts were being made on several fronts to widen external connections in the economic, military and moral fields. In the period before the final break, President Dorticos visited a number of Latin American states and, as President of the National Bank, Guevara travelled extensively in eastern Europe and Asia. By February, 1960, a trade agreement was signed with the U.S.S.R. for the sale of quantities of Cuban sugar and for credits for purchase of Soviet machinery and consumer goods. Later, other lesser trade deals were arranged with eastern European states and diplomatic exchanges arranged with China. All these developments no doubt convinced the Cuban government that official means of support could be gained from sources other than the traditional one. The speed with which new economic and military agreements were concluded with other countries following the early deterioration of relations with the United States is some indication that the ground had been prepared.
Furthermore, developments in other countries of the Caribbean must in some way have encouraged the Cuban government in the thought that regional support would have been forthcoming. It does not seem too unreasonable to assume, for example, that the Chaguaramas campaign of 1959/60 with its challenge to American military presence in Trinidad, and by extension the whole West Indian Federation, may have been suggestive to the Cuban government that the region was prepared to stand with them if and when the final break came. As it turned out, of course, this was not to be (for reasons discussed by Best in the last issue of New World Quarterly and the sequence which will appear in the next issue).
The underlying forces which led to the initial break with the plantation system derived from factors operating both within and outside of Cuba. Once the break was made, then the government was faced with the problem of the planning and implementation of change of a kind that would be rewarding to the popular commitment which had made the break possible in the first instance. Unless that could be achieved then the commitment could well have been eroded, making way for the return of the old order. As it was the government had little or no experience in planning and was forced to seek external assistance in this respect. Unsuitable planning methods had to be borrowed from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, and this extended the area of external dependence on the so-called socialist bloc. But the Urban Reform of late 1960 brought material rewards to the underprivileged urban classes and no doubt strengthened the support there.
Many external factors also helped to determine the future course of events. American hostility toward Cuba, expressed in the economic blockade and promotion of mercenary invasions, had results opposite to that for which they were intended. They met with strong internal resistance from a strongly committed people and enhanced moral support for Cuba in the rest of the world. Cubans today take great pride in the fact that they have managed to withstand the economic and military pressures of “Yankee imperialism”. It would seem to the visitor that American policy toward Cuba has really served to help consolidate the internal support for the government. This is not really surprising for, as Seers suggested, the embargo provides an excuse for almost any economic difficulty, whether or not it is actually so caused Moreover the greater the international tension, the easier it is for the government to appeal to nationalism . . . . and to maintain a high level of enthusiasm among the sections of the public that support it” (p. 59).
On the other hand, the difficulties of making rapid transformation in a country with the structure of pre-revolutionary Cuba forced the government more and more to seek new external alliances which could help to ease the transitional difficulties. And as material assistance was increasingly extended by the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and China, this carried with it certain developments which were later to influence the nature of external relations and eventually the political ideology of the Cuban government. The nature of these developments and their long run effects are the main considerations in the next section.